Westmont Magazine A Peaceful Place for Children
A bruised and battered 5-year-old spent endless hours chained to a pipe under the kitchen sink. Siblings were kept in cages and starved, shut away from the world. A suicidal teenager dashed into the path of a car on busy freeway. These are just a few of the horrific scenarios Steve Elson ’67 has confronted. Fortunately these youngsters survived their ordeals and found a haven at Casa Pacifica, a facility for abused, neglected and troubled children that Steve directs in Camarillo, Calif.
“It’s frustrating when parents are deficient and the legal system doesn’t protect children,” he says. “Sometime social workers make questionable decisions. We provide a last resort for children who need emergency or long-term intervention. We’re in the business of narrative repair — we help kids change their stories. Too many think they will die before they turn 18, and we give them hope for a happy ending.”
Concern for children rescued by Child Protective Services inspired civic leaders in Ventura County to develop Casa Pacifica in the 1990s. They recruited Steve, who had directed a similar program in La Crescenta, to head the new agency. Under his leadership, Casa Pacifica has become the largest mental health provider for children and adolescents in the tri-county area. With a budget of $20 million, a 23-acre facility and a staff of 325, it serves more than 1,500 youngsters each year and nearly 5,000 family members.
About 300 children live on campus, and they fall into two categories: those who need emergency and temporary shelter and youngsters with more serious problems requiring long-term residential treatment. A county school operates at the site for children in the shelter, and Casa Pacifica has developed an elementary and secondary school for its residential program. All children benefit from a wide range of medical and psychiatric services, including assessment, short-term trauma care, counseling and case management.
To keep youngsters at home and out of the system, the agency reaches out to the local community with a variety of programs. “We do whatever it takes to keep families together,” Steve says. “That could mean buying a refrigerator or paying the first and last month’s rent.” A new service puts a Crisis Mobile Response Team on call around the clock to handle emergencies.
After growing up in a home for missionary children, Steve had little interest in working at a place like Casa Pacifica. He planned to pursue an academic career and earned a doctorate in psychology at Michigan State. But at the urging of a friend who knew his background, he took a job at a children’s facility in Connecticut. Since then, his career has focused on counseling abused and troubled children and their families; eventually he moved into administration. At Casa Pacifica he oversees the senior staff, manages the budget and works with the board of directors. Ongoing training for the professional staff is one of his priorities because he understands the demands of the daily challenges they face.
As a psychology student at Westmont, Steve did an internship at Camarillo State Hospital, which is now CSU Channel Islands. Casa Pacifica is just down the road, and the university’s president sits on the agency’s board. Volunteers play a key role at Casa Pacifica, working directly with children and helping the organization raise 10 percent of its budget through four major events each year. “We call them “Angels” for good reason,” Steve says. “They make a difference.”